The Oil and the Glory

Rex Tillerson, the Flying Wallenda

A year after the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Rex Tillerson is aggravated. What is upsetting the CEO of ExxonMobil, the biggest oil supermajor? His company is being mentioned in the same breath as BP and its lesser drillers, men who required 87 days to cap the runaway Macondo oil well, while Tillerson’s own ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

A year after the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Rex Tillerson is aggravated. What is upsetting the CEO of ExxonMobil, the biggest oil supermajor? His company is being mentioned in the same breath as BP and its lesser drillers, men who required 87 days to cap the runaway Macondo oil well, while Tillerson’s own team knew that the British company was frittering away precious time with faulty ideas for ending the crisis,Tillerson tells the Financial Times. Meanwhile, the whole industry’s reputation was going down the drain. Oh the injustice. Oh the calumny.

As a point of fact, Tillerson has a case. The procedure to which he is referring — the early attempt to contain the April 20, 2010, spill underneath a dome — was an utter failure. Hydrates formed in the containment dome, thus blocking a tube meant to siphon oil to the surface, and buoying the structure back toward the ocean surface.

What  vexes Tillerson is that at this time — meaning in early May of last year — an Exxon man on the spot suggested that the only way to stop the spill was to install what’s called a "stacking cap" on top of the blowout preventer. Indeed BP itself hadn’t believed that the dome stood much of a chance to succeed, but said it was worth a try, and on its own had considered a stacking cap for a time, but then put it on the back burner for fear of a second, underwater blowout.

But here is what really galls Tillerson — in the end, BP did install such a cap, and that is what worked. Tillerson thinks that BP should have weighed the chances of success and risks of failure of each possible resolution, skipped the containment dome and gone straight to the stacking cap. That’s what Exxon would have done, he suggests, and obviously it would have worked much earlier than 87 days. Read on for more of the Tillerson-BP spat.

Yet is that all that is going on here — a professional row such as we witness in all manner of arenas, from the coaching of football teams to the observation of stars? Partly, yes — Exxon culture is suffused with exceptionalism: its employees think they know best, and barely hide their contempt for the rival companies. As for their rivals themselves, on the oil patch, one observes some recognition of this order — oilmen from the other companies a lot of times wish they were from Exxon.

In addition, Tillerson — and the CEOs of the rest of the dozen oil companies with stalled leases in the Gulf of Mexico — are furious that they are being punished for BP’s lapse. They want to get drilling.

Yet, as we’ve discussed, when it comes to oil drilling, an accident by one company does in fact indict all — the public suddenly realizes that the risks that the industry as a whole has blithely swatted away are in fact very real. Prior to Macondo, the industry — to use a terrible but nicely descriptive metaphor — was walking a tightrope over a bay of sharks without a net. Tillerson’s belief is that his men would never have fallen in. We can ask Karl Wallenda for his opinion about that.

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